Tag Archives: nativeplants

Underfoot: Spicebush

By: Susan Sprout

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is THE native shrub I love to find while taking nature walks with kids, especially in the fall when its leaves are starting to turn yellow and its spicy berries (drupes) have ripened to a bright red. The squeezing and the sniffing of berries, leaves, and twigs make for a great multi-sensory experience.

Early fall berries before the leaves turn yellow.

The Laurel Family, of which Spicebush is a member, also gives us Sassafras, locally, as well as tropicals like Cinnamon and Sweet Bay. Hooray for this fragrant family! There is also a similar species of Spicebush (with finely hairy twigs) growing in the southeastern U.S., where it is endangered from habitat loss.

Spicebush leaves turn yellow before they fall.

Our Spicebush is three to seven feet tall and commonly found in moist woods or in the understory along stream banks. To identify it in the spring, look for clusters of tiny, one-eighth inch yellowish flowers, attached directly on the twigs, usually during March and April. They begin blooming before the two to five inch, egg-shaped leaves appear.  In the autumn, look for peeks of red shining through the leaves to find the berries. Sometimes this can be a difficult task because Spicebush is dioecious with male and female flowers on separate plants, requiring the pollen to move quite a distance to pollinate the female flowers. If it doesn’t get there, no berries. You may have to identify it by the lemony fragrance of a crushed leaf…not an unpleasant task!

Spicebush has many culinary and medicinal uses, like the rest of its family – tea from leaves and twigs, spice from dried and ground berries, extract from leaves and bark for inducing perspiration to break a fever or as liniment for rheumatism and bruises or a tonic for colds.

Underfoot: Nodding Ladies’ Tresses

By Susan Sprout

When I find Nodding Ladies’ Tresses, it makes me want to twist and shout!  In thanks for the plant being there, growing  –  AND –  in honor of a very special movement each little white flower on the stem has to make in order to bloom.

The labellum or lip which is attached above, actually twists down and around so that it is now below the other petals as it opens! This action provides a landing place for visiting insects and may also allow the lip to get more sunlight, showing patterns and nectar guides better.

Orchid flowers that do the twist are called “resupinate”. Yes, this plant is an orchid, native to Eastern North America. While it is not an uncommon plant, it is picky about where it lives and with whom. I found these in partial shade, along a dirt road where  the soil was wet and acidic.

Nodding Ladies’ Tresses will spread slowly by underground rhizomes to form colonies. They can reproduce by seed, too, but their seeds lack the store of starch and nutrients necessary for successful germination. Therefore, they require the help of mycorrhizal fungi to provide fixed carbon and mineral nutrients for the growth of seedlings…a specific species of fungus. Picky!

Look for them. They will keep blooming until the first frost. The single stem, about sixteen inches tall, holds a six-inch flower spike with a coiled spiral of white or ivory flowers, each one being held by a bulbous bract that is green and covered with minute hairs that spread about halfway down the stem. You may find two or three really thin leaves tightly clasping the lower stem. A basal rosette of leaves will be gone by the time the plant blooms. The tongue-shaped lower lips of the flowers are thin and lacy.

At least ten species in the genus Spiranthes can be found in Pennsylvania in various forms and locations.

When you find some, twist and shout!

Underfoot: White Snakeroot

By Susan Sprout

White Snakeroot is blooming now through October, depending on the weather. The heavy rain and hail last week may have taken a toll on their white, fuzzy-looking flower heads.

A close-up of the blossoms

Members of the Aster Family, they are unlike many of their relatives such as daisies with composite or compound flower heads, because they do not have any ray florets or petals surrounding the middle of the bloom. Instead, the whole flat-topped flower head is composed of white disk flowers that on closer inspection look like little tubes with five lobes at their tops. The male part of the flower is white and Y-shaped and sticks out beyond the tubes. That is what makes the flowers look fluffier. After pollination, the disk flowers will be replaced by tiny black seeds, about one-tenth of an inch long, with five ridges on their sides. A small tuft of white hair on each one helps with distribution by the wind. 

White Snakeroot is a native perennial plant with thin green to brown round stems. Their opposite leaves are oval-shaped and can be coarsely to sharply toothed. They flourish in deep shade to full sun and are common in woods, meadows, and along roads. The whole plant has a rather angular look to it with the flower heads jutting straight off above the leaf pairs!

Every part of this plant, living or dried, can be fatal to humans and domestic livestock if they have drunk the milk of animals that have eaten it. In the early 19th century, “milk sickness” claimed the lives of thousands of people unfamiliar with White Snakeroot and had used it as forage for their livestock. Abraham Lincoln’s mother is said to have died after using this toxic plant. Do look this up and read more about who discovered White Snakeroot was actually the cause of this horrible sickness!

White Snakeroot

Underfoot: Beech Drops & Partridge Berry

By: Susan Sprout

Find out what’s underfoot with NPC member and environmental educator, Susan Sprout! Catch up on past issues of Underfoot: Introduction & BloodrootTrout Lily & ColtsfootBlue Cohosh & Dutchman’s BreechesGround Ivy & Forget-Me-NotsGoldthread & Wild GingerCommon Mullein & Sweet WoodruffAniseroot & Butterfly WeedMyself Jewelweed & SoapwortAmerican Pennyroyal & Great LobeliaBoneset & Common RagweedPokeweed & Blue Chicory, Prickly Cucumber & Wintergreen.

Beech Drops

Beech Drops are parasitic native plants that grow upon American beech tree roots. They lack chlorophyll and derive all of their nourishment from the beech roots through a specialized rootlike structure named a haustorium. It is underground and provides the lifegiving attachment to its host, without which the plant could not complete its lifecycle. As parasites go, this one is not known to cause significant harm to its host tree because it is short-lived.

Beech Drops stem with scales and flowers.

Beech Drops can grow from 5 to 15 inches tall. Their brownish-tan stems and branches blend in with the fallen leaves. I sometimes pass them by when not looking for them specifically. I was looking last week…and what a find! The flowers in the tiny leaf axils were open, and I could see their bright purple edges in the sunlight. The leaves are more like toothy scales, and the two types of flowers can be either pollinated or sterile. It was a treat.

Soon the seeds will be dispersed by rainfall and land on the ground where they will take several years before popping into view. Find them while you can. If you don’t, look for them on a winter walk, their dried up stems poking through the white snow.

Partridge Berry

Our native plant, Partridge Berry, is a low-growing, colonial plant that folks sometimes confuse with Wintergreen. Both are perennials, found in similar growing conditions, have shiny evergreen leaves and bright red berries that may stay on their stems throughout the winter. However, Partridge Berry leaves are different with a pale, yellowish mid-rib or central leaf vein. Wintergreen flowers hang under the leaves, whereas Partridge Berry’s twin white flowers form at the tip end of its creeping stem.

Twin flowers of Partridge Berry

The most unusual clue to identification of the Partridge Berry plant is the berry itself: it has two sets of calyx lobes because the double blooms, after being pollinated, will fuse into one berry. I know, “calyx lobes”? It’s a term botanists use…just think of what the bottom of an apple looks like only much smaller! Two flowers make one berry with a pair of…oh, all right…call them belly buttons! How cool is that!

This plant provides browse for birds, deer and mice. Women in many of the Native American tribes used this plant as an aid during childbirth. Whether you call it Squaw Vine, Twinflower, Partridge Berry or Mitchella repens, it is a really cool and interesting plant!

Click here to get to know Susan Sprout!

Underfoot: Aniseroot & Butterfly Weed

By: Susan Sprout

Find out what’s underfoot with NPC member and environmental educator, Susan Sprout! Catch up on past issues of Underfoot: Introduction & BloodrootTrout Lily & ColtsfootBlue Cohosh & Dutchman’s BreechesGround Ivy & Forget-Me-Nots, Goldthread & Wild Ginger, Common Mullein & Sweet Woodruff

Aniseroot is a member of the Parsley Family whose common name refers to its lovely “black jelly bean” scented root. Lacking sufficient sugar, colonial-era cooks used the chopped root to add sweetness to their pies and tart fruit recipes. Mmmm, yummy! The three-times compound leaves carry the scent as well as the seeds. People used to use the essential oil of the seeds as a furniture polish.

This plant is an early bloomer with sparse clusters of tiny five-petaled flowers that are long gone by now. Why do I tell about Aniseroot now?
It is all about the seeds! When this plant has mature seeds on it, the seed heads stand out at the top of the plant like antennae, waving their long, thin, canoe-shaped seeds to get your attention. That makes Aniseroot easily recognizable during the summer. Check them out when you walk through rich woods and along streams. Smell a crushed leaf for proof positive. A close relative, Sweet Cicely, is very similar in looks, but lacks scented leaves.

Aniseroot seeds

Butterfly Weed (or Pleurisy Root)
The root of this stunning native plant was once officially recognized as a medicine for pleurisy and included in the United States Pharmacopoeia. Its bright red-orange blossoms can be seen from summer into mid-fall; so look for a flash of its bright flowers out across a dry field or wild pasture. They really stand out. A member of the milkweed family, this plant may lack the gooey, white sap of its other relatives, but it sure does attract lots of butterflies!

Standing about three feet tall, its stiff, alternate leaves look like smooth spear points. The long, narrow pods that follow the flowers will split when dry to release many seeds carried on the wind by silky parachutes. Historically, cave dwellers in Arkansas, mound builders in Ohio, and Iroquois tribes of the northeast have all used butterfly weed stem fibers for making cords and other textiles. It has a wide distribution…must be the silky parachutes! Plant some in your garden. The butterflies will love you.

Susan Sprout is a retired school teacher who continued teaching after retirement at Montour Preserve helping teachers of  handicapped students with nature walks, at the National Shell Museum as a curator of the fossil collection, and as teacher of Shell Studies at the local school on Sanibel Island. Based on her love and study of plants, she does living history presentations of medicinal plants used by Native Americans, colonial immigrants, and people living during the Civil War. Both she and her husband, Richard, serve as cannoneers  with Thompson’s Independent Battery C PA Light Artillery.  Sue has served on the Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy board in the past. The Sprouts have been Conservancy members for 29 years.